History Vs. Podcast Episode 2: Theodore Roosevelt Vs. Time

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Mental Floss has a new podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.

It’s a chilly day in February 1877, and Theodore Roosevelt, a freshman at Harvard, is busy. Very, very busy. He wakes up at 7:30 and breakfasts on “hot biscuits, toast, chops or beef steak, and buckwheat cakes.”

After breakfast, he reviews notes from his classes—he’s taking classical literature; composition and translation in Greek, Latin, and German; trigonometry and geometry; physics; and chemistry.

At 10 a.m. he eagerly digs into his mail, reviewing the day’s letters, perhaps dashing off a few rapid-fire replies.

From 11 a.m. to noon he attends Latin recitation, after which he heads to the gym to train for an upcoming boxing match in the lightweight division at Harvard.

Next, lunch, where there is a “free fight” that sends a fellow student under the table, prompting threats of expulsion from a Mrs. Morgan.

After lunch, there is more studying and more recitation until late into the afternoon.

In the evening he dines with a Mr. and Mrs. Tudor, writing later that he had “a very pleasant home-like time.”

From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is History Vs., a podcast about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. I’m your host, Erin McCarthy, and this week’s episode is TR versus Time.

Roosevelt once declared, “I have already lived and enjoyed as much of life as any nine other men I know,” and it’s true—it’s hard to think of another person who accomplished as much as TR did, even though he was working with 24 hours in the day, just like the rest of us.

Cal Newport: This is the crazy thing. The busiest job you can imagine is being the president of the United States, and even in that job, he felt like he had too much downtime.

That’s Cal Newport, author of the books Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World and Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. He first read about TR’s feats of productivity in historian Edmund Morris’s book, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.

Roosevelt was home-schooled for most of his life, because he was too weak to go to regular school, but he thrived under the strict schedule set by the Dresden family he lived with in Germany for five months in 1873.

It’s perhaps this time in Germany that formed TR’s lifelong obsession with a schedule. Each day, he would get up at 6:30, eat breakfast until 7:30, then study until 12:30. Then he’d have lunch, study until 3, and enjoy free time until tea at 7. After that, it was studying until 10, then bed. He wrote to his father, Thee, “It is harder than I have ever studied before in my life, but I like it for I really feel that I am making considerable progress.”

When he had to take some time off after an asthma attack, he insisted that his tutors work him extra hard to make up what he had missed. When he was 15, the Roosevelts returned to the States, and TR took up with another tutor, this time with an ambitious goal: Get into Harvard in the fall of 1876, which meant passing the entrance exams in the summer of ‘75.

Roosevelt had a year and a half to cram, and he studied six to eight hours every day. His tutor, Arthur Cutler, later wrote, “The young man never seemed to know what idleness was.”

According to author David McCullough, in that time Roosevelt accomplished what normally took three years, and he passed his preliminary Harvard entrance exams in July 1875.

TR kept just as busy while he was at Harvard, where he lived in a boarding house off campus because the dorms were considered not ideal for his asthma.

He joined a number of clubs: He wrote in his diary that he was “Librarian of the Porcellian, Secretary of the Pudding, Treasurer of the O.K., Vice President of the Natural History Soc., President of the A.D.Q. [and] Editor of the Advocate." He was also a member of the Glee Club, although he didn’t sing. He taught Sunday School. He took dance class but avoided going to the theater, because “I don’t care for it, and it might hurt my eyes.”

He read incessantly, at a rate of two to three pages a minute. He boxed and wrestled and hiked. He courted the ladies and had an active social life. He studied as much as 36 hours a week. And in between that, he found time to write two works on ornithology and begin a book that would later be placed on every Navy ship, The Naval War of 1812. In the words of one classmate, TR was “forever at it.”

Cal: This is someone who was taking issues of productivity to new levels.

According to Morris, TR got through such huge amounts of work due to “iron self-discipline” that had become a habit. He spent just a quarter of the day at his desk, but he concentrated so hard, and read so rapidly, that he could take more time off than most other students. But even his time off was not that restful. It was packed with activity.

Newport was so inspired by Morris’s description of TR’s productivity that he featured Roosevelt in Deep Work.

Cal: There's really two factors to his productivity. One is this idea which I've written about more recently, including in Digital Minimalism, which is his belief that action is better than inaction. And that’s an interesting idea. A lot of people, especially today in a world of easy distraction, think what they really need is just time when they have nothing to do, they can just sit there and watch Netflix while swiping on their phone and just be bathed in passive distraction. They need that to recharge. They're exhausted. But TR is from this other school of thought, which says you're almost always better off, from a perspective of recharging your satisfaction, doing things, quality things, hard things all the time. You could be doing hard things or sleep, and that's it.

Throughout late 19th-century, early 20th-century thinkers, this is a common idea, that action all the time that's quality leaves you better off than trying to alternate between sort of pure passive rest and action. So I like that. But the other element is that he really believed in this formula that I've been writing about for years, which is what you produce is a function of the time you spend times your intensity of focus. And so TR's hack was "Let me take the intensity of focus piece of that equation and really pump it up as high as possible. If I can do that, then I can really minimize the time spent piece and get a lot of things accomplished."

We’ll be right back after a word from our sponsor.

 

Morris wrote that Roosevelt “plotted every day with the methodism of a Wesleyan minister,” and there’s no better example of that than a schedule of one of his days from the campaign trail in 1900. While incumbent presidential candidate William McKinley largely stayed away from the campaign trail, vice presidential candidate Roosevelt was crisscrossing the country.

The schedule itself is a testament to his boundless energy, but so are the statistics of that campaign season: According to Morris, Roosevelt, by November, had made “673 speeches in 567 towns in 24 states; he had traveled 21,209 miles and spoken an average of 20,000 words a day to 3 million people.”

One day on the trail, his schedule went like this:

  • 7:00 a.m. Breakfast
  • 7:30 a.m. A speech
  • 8:00 a.m. Reading a historical work
  • 9:00 a.m. A speech
  • 10:00 a.m. Dictating letters
  • 11:00 a.m. Discussing Montana mines
  • 11:30 a.m. A speech
  • 12:00 p.m. Reading an ornithological work
  • 12:30 p.m. A speech
  • 1:00 p.m. Lunch
  • 1:30 p.m. A speech
  • 2:30 p.m. Reading [Scottish novelist] Sir Walter Scott
  • 3:00 p.m. Answering telegrams
  • 3:45 p.m. A speech
  • 4:00 p.m. Meeting the press
  • 4:30 p.m. Reading
  • 5:00 p.m. A speech
  • 6:00 p.m. Reading
  • 7:00 p.m. Supper
  • 8-10 p.m. Speaking
  • 11:00 p.m. Reading alone in his [train] car
  • 12:00 a.m. To bed

It’s enough to make you want to take a nap.

Erin: He had a long history of basically having these really regimented days. Is that something that you think contributed to his ability to get a lot done?

Cal: I think it absolutely did. A lot of people, especially today, when they're thinking about their personal productivity, they think in terms of tasks. You know, what do I want to get done today? Where's my to-do list? Maybe I'm going to do the most-important-task-of-the-day system, where I choose one thing I really want to get done.

But something I consistently discover is that high achievers are often echoing the Roosevelt approach, which is "I want to actually allocate my attention," which means when you look at a particular day, you're not making a task list; you're blocking off your hours. What am I doing during this half hour? What am I doing during these three hours? You have so much attention to give in a day; you're trying to find the optimal allocation.

They also think about this on higher scales. What am I doing this week? Oh, Wednesday is the day that I'm going to have a lot of downtime in the morning, so that's when I'm going to really get after this project.

And so that idea of thinking about "I have, whatever it is—12 hours of attention to allocate in a day, some of those hours are going to be higher intensity than others, depending on where they fall; how do I get the biggest return on that attention?" That's an incredibly powerful productivity hack. It's one that I've been preaching, and I was influenced in that, in particular, by that approach of TR.

We know he was even doing that with his leisure, which I find interesting. When he's at Oyster Bay, when he's at his house on the Long Island Sound, he had pretty structured approaches to: I'm going to go rowing. I'm going to row across the sound, then we're going to play these games with the cousins, then we're going to read or whatever. Even at his leisure, he was allocating his attention as well.

Erin: So how does TR compare to other highly productive or successful people in history?

Cal: So he has that, as we talked about before, that manic energy, that need to always be doing things, that distrust of passive relaxation. That's pretty common. I mean, you see that a lot, let's say, in the business world in high achievers. That's certainly a definitive trait of, let's say, like Elon Musk or Bill Gates, for example. These are people who had this restless drive. "I’ve got do something. I’ve got to do something else. I don't trust passive time. I don't trust recharging," I mean, often to the detriment of their health.

That type of thing is common. Once you get to a certain level of productivity, like you're running ... two companies at the same time, or you're running the country at the same time that you're writing books. That's how they get there. You can't get there without being highly intentional about your time.

Roosevelt’s level of activity didn’t let up when he was in the White House. This might be best exemplified by a project created by archivist Chloe Elder, who, in the summer of 2017, was between masters degrees and doing a remote internship at the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University in North Dakota.

Every day, she’d clock in and go through material piece by piece adding metadata. A lot of the documents Elder was cataloging were letters written during Roosevelt’s presidency.

Chloe: There's something about being plopped down right in the middle of someone's correspondence. It's immediate. It's often very intimate.

As she was working, Elder began to notice a pattern.

Chloe: I kept seeing this one sort of standard reply from TR's secretary. And it would be something along the lines of, "Thank you very much for your letter, or your invitation, but President Roosevelt is far too busy to respond personally, or far too busy to attend the event, or make a speech, or read your story that you've submitted to him." And I just wanted to see, well how busy was he?

So she decided to create a calendar—something that would allow her to visualize just what a week in the life of President Roosevelt looked like. She began searching through the digitized archives at the Center, as well as his desk diaries, which he kept every day. Eventually, she zeroed in on a week where Roosevelt was sitting for a portrait by John Singer Sargent.

Chloe: TR would only pose for half an hour a day, after lunch, and it was apparently very hard to get him to sit still and not be rushing off somewhere else.

Erin: Classic TR.

After gathering all of the data and crunching the numbers, a picture began to emerge, and that picture was action-packed. According to the calendar Elder created, sometimes TR would hold up to eight meetings in an hour, meaning that if they were all equal in length, they would have been a mere 7.5 minutes each.

But even for TR, life doesn’t neatly fit into such tidy chunks.

Chloe: Some of the meetings do look like they're really quick, it says to pay respects. So that sounds like a brief sort of introduction. But then there are other meetings, and you could maybe guess what was going on if you also look at what was happening politically at the time, or looking at his letters. But a lot of it is still a bit of a mystery.

And on top of his busy schedule, he was sending letter after letter after letter.

Chloe: How many letters did he write that week? I'd have to count up, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25 ... I mean, a lot of letters that week. I saw he regularly wrote more letters than he received on any given day, really. In his lifetime he wrote over 150,000 letters.

Erin: I'm not president of the United States and I struggle to return an email.

Chloe: Right?

This is probably a good place for a break. We’ll be right back.

 

In addition to his many meetings and his epic commitment to correspondence, TR was also reading around a book a day and making time to be active.

Roosevelt played tennis, though he was never photographed in his tennis whites. He boxed, and when he couldn’t do that anymore, he took up jiu-jitsu. He swam—nude—in the Potomac. And he regularly dragged diplomats to Rock Creek Park to take a brisk walk or maybe scale a cliff.

As one such diplomat later recalled of a jaunt in the park, “He … made me struggle through bushes and over rocks for two hours and a half, at an impossible speed, till I was so done that I could hardly stand. His great delight is rock climbing, which is my weak point. I disgraced myself completely, and my arms and shoulders are still stiff with dragging myself up by roots and ledges. At one place I fairly stuck, and could not get over the top till he caught me by the collar and hauled at me.… He did almost all the talking, to my great relief, for I had no breath to spare.”

After he left the White House, TR’s ability to get a lot done in very little time loomed large. His successor, William Howard Taft, bemoaned, “I would give anything in the world if I had the ability to clear away work as Roosevelt did.” Me too, Will. Me too.

Erin: I often say that TR just makes me feel really tired, because it's like, "How?”

Cal: So the key factor seems to be this internal engine that gives him such a burst of energy that he has to be doing things throughout the day, and I've never seen someone focus it more intensely than he did. I'm also in awe. I wish I had maybe, what, 30 percent of his energy. I'd probably be 200 percent more productive.

Erin: He didn't have many of the distractions that we have today. Do we think that he would be as productive if he had a smartphone, for example, or the internet?

Cal: I don't know. On the one hand, he clearly had this huge energy and a huge drive to intensely do things and to produce things, so he might've been a figure that was just completely dismissive of "I don't need passive entertainment. I don't need to sit. This is not valuable enough. I don't want to sit here tweeting. I want to write a book," right. So he might've been completely dismissive of it.

On the other hand, he was highly curious and really attracted to new information. When you're talking about the early 20th century, what could you do? You could have smart people to the White House. You could read books. They were inherently very focused activities. We might see a TR that was so entranced by all these different rabbit holes he could go down, that instead of writing the book on naval history, he would be watching YouTube videos about knot-tying or something like that.

And if that latter thing is true, then that begs the question, how many potential TRs, at least in terms of productive output, leadership, and impact, are we losing? Because that huge energy and curiosity, "I need to do things, I need to act, I need to produce things," I mean, is that being sacked by an attention economy engine that is more roaming and finely tuned than we've ever had before in history. That's the pessimistic view—[that] we've been losing potential TRs because of it.

But I don't know. I tend to think he wants to produce. He wants to think big thoughts. He wants to produce interesting things. He wants to make big changes. He probably would not be a big user of Twitter. That would be my guess.

If you, like me, are wondering where Roosevelt found the energy to get so much done, one clue might be in his coffee intake. He was said to drink up to a gallon of coffee a day, and according to his son Ted, his mug was less like a regular coffee mug and “more in the nature of a bathtub.” He put up to seven lumps of sugar in each cup, too.

But according to Elder, that might not be Roosevelt’s ultimate hack.

Erin: So what do you think the rest of us can learn about how to be productive from TR's approach to his schedule?

Chloe: Well I wouldn't recommend the gallon of coffee a day. But I think he found what worked for him as far as being very productive all the time. And he seemed to thrive in that sort of environment. TR wasn't used to sitting still for more than half hour, and his MO was just to keep going and keep moving. And he was steadfast in that way of doing things, and I think that really worked for him. Just to find out what works best and run with it.

And when Newport thinks about how we can all be a little more like TR, he thinks of a quote from an interview Steve Martin did with Charlie Rose.

Cal: Charlie Rose had asked him, "What's your advice to aspiring entertainers?" And Steve Martin said, "Well, the advice I give them, which is never what they want to hear, but the advice I give them is be so good you can't be ignored. If you do that, good things will come." But TR, I think, really embodied that as well. He didn't just want to do things; he wanted to do things really well. He always wanted to be so good you couldn't ignore him. He was always driven to do things at a really high level of quality, which sounds obvious, but I think it's really different than a lot of our instincts today, especially in a world of sort of attention-economy media, as well as digital communication, where we also have this hustle culture, which is just be busy, right, do lots of things. Email lots of people. Have lots of coffees. Do a lot of things on social media. Just be kind of in the mix and crushing it and hustling and all this, and that'll somehow alchemize into some sort of success.

And I think TR represented a counterpoint to that, which is busyness by itself means nothing, hustling by itself means nothing. Things that you produce, things that you have shipped that are so good that it's hard for people to ignore, that's the foundation for interesting impact. I love the way that he embodied that. Busyness for busyness' sake was not a value. Intensity toward things that really mattered or might have a real impact was something he cared about. I think there's probably a lot to learn from that today.

Credits

History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy.

This episode was written by me, with fact checking by Austin Thompson.

The executive producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang.

The supervising producer is Dylan Fagan.

This show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.

Special thanks to Cal Newport and Chloe Elder.

To learn more about this episode, check out mentalfloss.com/historyvs.

History Vs. is a production of iHeartRadio and Mental Floss.

History Vs. Episode 5: Theodore Roosevelt Vs. Language

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Have you ever looked at a word—like although, for example—and thought: There are just too many letters in this word? If so, congratulations: You have a little something in common with Theodore Roosevelt, author of more than 30 books and 150,000 letters.

You know who else thought there were just too many letters in English words? Philanthropist and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie.

In 1906, Carnegie created, and financially supported, the Simplified Spelling Board. According to The New York Times, Carnegie thought that English had the potential to be “the world language of the future,” and that would help lead to world peace.

But according to the Board, English was “handicapped by one thing and one only—its intricate and disordered spelling, which makes it a puzzle to the stranger within our gates and a mystery to the stranger beyond the seas.”

The Board decided to pursue a course of reform by omission: Drop letters that were unpronounced or deemed unnecessary. Teaching would be made easier, written correspondence would be faster, printing would be more efficient, not to mention cheaper. One publisher estimated that using Simplified Spelling in the publishing business would save up to $40 million—which is over a billion dollars in today’s money.

The Board’s proposed reforms were published and somehow found their way to President Theodore Roosevelt, who thought that what the board was proposing made a lot of sense.

He threw his support behind their reforms, which included chopping although from A-L-T-H-O-U-G-H to A-L-T-H-O and knocking the extra S’s and ED’s from words like missed and kissed so that they were spelled M-I-S-T and K-I-S-T, respectively. P-H-A-N-T-O-M became F-A-N-T-O-M. Cats wouldn’t P-U-R-R, they’d P-U-R. And so on.

But on August 27, 1906, when TR signed an Executive Order that made the Board’s spelling reforms required in government documents, he never could have predicted how controversial his actions would be.

Simplified Spelling wasn’t the only way TR took on language in his life—he warped the pronunciation of words to get noticed, coined iconic phrases, and used the English language as a political tool. Just how did he use language to achieve his desired ends? We’re about to find out.

From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is History Vs., a podcast about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. I’m your host, Erin McCarthy, and this week’s episode is TR vs. Language.

By the time he became president, Theodore Roosevelt was a master of many languages: He could read in French, German, Italian, and Latin (though he called reading in Latin “dreary labor”). He also spoke French and German, although his French was, in the words of his Secretary of State John Hay, “lawless as to grammar.”

He also had a very unusual speaking style—so unusual that, according to Edmund Morris, it “has the effect of burying his remarks, like shrapnel, in the memory of the listener.” Once they hear what he’s said to them, they don’t forget it.

Arika Okrent: It seems like he did have a very distinctive way of talking since it was remarked upon by people who wrote about it, and they noticed it. So it must've been … seemed a little odd or strange.

That’s Arika Okrent, linguist and Mental Floss contributor, and the person I call whenever I have a question about language.

There are some recordings of Roosevelt speaking, but as Okrent notes, most of what we know about how he spoke is through other people writing about it. And whenever they talked about how he spoke, they also usually talked about his teeth, so we’ll continue that fine tradition here.

According to Morris, Roosevelt’s “white and even” teeth would “chop every word into neat syllables, sending them forth perfectly formed but separate, in a jerky staccatissimo that has no relation to the normal rhythms of speech.”

One of TR’s colleagues summed it up by saying, “I always think of a man biting tenpenny nails when I think of Roosevelt making a speech.”

His manner of speaking led some to believe that he’d had a speech impediment as a kid. A college classmate noted that when they deliberately riled him up, he would “sometimes lose altogether the power of articulation,” and according to a colleague in the New York State Assembly, “he would open his mouth and run out his tongue and it was hard for him to speak.” Morris notes that his diction was “syncopated … sibilants hiss out like escaping steam; plosives drive the lips apart with an audible pfft.”

Okrent: Plosive P, I imagine would be like an extreme build up. So a Ppp, a lot of air coming out, maybe some spit, very forceful. P-Powerful.

Whatever the reason for how he spoke, Roosevelt leaned into it. As a young assemblyman, he’d warp the pronunciation of the word speaker, yelling “MR. SPEE-KAR, MR. SPEE-KAR!” over and over, sometimes for 40 minutes, to get the speaker’s attention.

Okrent: “This is what everyone else in Congress sounds like,” or, “This is what everyone else in New York high society sounds like.” I guess he would be picking up on that, but he used these devices to get attention, and maybe he also bristled against the elocution training that they did back then. If you went to school, and they did this at Harvard, you had elocution lessons where they taught you how to pronounce things, and do public speaking, and the right gestures to make when you do public speaking, and the right way to breathe and hold your body. And maybe he bristled against that, or maybe thought it was too British, or I don’t know...

Interestingly, when he was out in the Dakotas in the mid-1880s, TR changed his way of speaking, too. In his book Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands, Roger L. Di Silvestro quotes the Pioneer Press as writing that “The slow exasperating drawl and the unique accent the New Yorker feels he must use when visiting a less blessed portion of civilization have disappeared, and in their place is a nervous, energetic manner of talking with the flat accent of the West.”

Whether or not Roosevelt was a good public speaker is up for debate. In the 1940s, a grad student named William Auburn Behl put that question to those who had known him, and the reviews were … not favorable. Jeremy C. Young, author of the book The Age of Charisma, put these reviews together in a blog post.

One person called TR’s gesticulations and his high-pitched voice “terrible,” while another said he “wasn’t a great speaker but one felt the force and magnetism of his personality and … his great honesty and genuineness.” As one journalist noted in 1900, “Theodore Roosevelt is a marvel as a campaigner, more from his tremendous strength, energy, force, and endurance than from finish and grace of delivery or diction.”

Young notes that, in Roosevelt’s era, most public figures, like William Jennings Bryan, used an emotional style of speaking called “personal magnetism.” But this was precisely the opposite of what Roosevelt learned at Harvard from his rhetoric teacher, Adams Sherman Hill, who said that “our feelings ought to be regulated by the facts which excite them.”

Young says that Roosevelt’s speeches “were often dry, equivocal, and monotonous,” because he’d revise them over and over and then read the typed speeches rather than speaking off the cuff, as Bryan did.

But make no mistake: Even if his speeches could be dull, TR definitely had a way with words. He coined terms and phrases that we still use today, like “bully pulpit,” “nailing jelly to a wall”—he actually said “They might just as well ask me why I do not nail currant jelly to the wall”—and the political usage of “my hat is in the ring.”

Supposedly he’s the one who called Maxwell House coffee “good to the last drop.”

One phrase we all think of when we think of TR is “Speak softly and carry a big stick, you will go far.” He said it was a West African proverb he was fond of, but according to the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, there doesn’t seem to be evidence that it was actually a West African proverb.

He popularized many other words and phrases, like "strong as a bull moose," "lunatic fringe," "mollycoddle," and "pussyfooting." He also popularized the phrase “weasel words,” which originally referenced the legend that a weasel can suck the contents out of an egg while leaving the shell intact. He said he heard a friend’s brother use it in reference to another person who could, in the brother’s words, “take a word and weasel it around and suck the meat out of it like a weasel sucks the meat out of an egg, until it don't mean anything at all, no matter what it sounds like it means.”

It’s a favorite phrase of Okrent’s.

Okrent: It's a metalinguistic look at language. This person is speaking this way, and the things they're doing with their words are weaselly, or the words aren't bearing meaning in the way they should. That's interesting in a sort of the pre-Orwell way of looking at what people do with words, and how they work with words, and manipulate with words.

We’ll be right back.

 

TR also used language to craft devastatingly colorful insults: One supreme court justice was “an amiable old fuzzy-wuzzy with sweetbread brains,” while frequent presidential candidate and Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan was “a professional yodeler, a human trombone.”

Roosevelt called novelist Henry James a “little emasculated mass of inanity” while Mississippi Congressman John Sharp Williams was a “true old-style Jeffersonian of the barbaric blatherskite variety.” A blatherskite, by the way, is someone who talks a lot without making a lot of sense. Burn.

This mastery of language may not have been evident in all of TR’s speeches, but it was definitely present in some of them. There’s a reason why his 1910 speech “Citizenship in a Republic” or, as it’s more commonly known, “The Man in the Arena,” is still quoted more than a century after it was delivered:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

But it can’t all be eloquent speeches and dee-lightful insults and catchy phrases. In his correspondence, Roosevelt used derogatory language and slurs in regards to other races and nationalities. Thomas G. Dyer addresses TR’s use of language like this in his book Theodore Roosevelt and the Idea of Race, noting that, “While TR seemed to derive considerable pleasure from the frequent private use of racial and ethnic epithets, he rarely used the terms in public … The extent of this language and the frequency of its usage indicates the preoccupation with racial differences that Roosevelt and his contemporaries had, but it also suggests Roosevelt’s professed objectivity in matters of race should not always be taken at face value.”

Henry Cabot Lodge, TR’s mentor, sometimes scrubbed that language, along with some of TR’s insults, from their published correspondence, so Lodge must have known that its use would not have painted TR in the best light.

Roosevelt also felt, in his words, that “We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language.” He believed that immigrants loyal to America should assimilate completely and be required to learn English, and that only English should be taught in schools.

In a 1916 speech to the National Americanization Committee, Roosevelt said that immigrants should become fully Americanized by learning English. This, he said, would give them more opportunities in America, and they wouldn’t be seen “only as an industrial asset.”

“Let us say to the immigrant not that we hope he will learn English, but that he has got to learn it,” Roosevelt said. “Let the immigrant who does not learn it go back.”

This type of attitude, according to Okrent, doesn’t reflect the reality of what actually happens when immigrants come to America.

Okrent: It does look kind of scary I guess when there's a lot of immigrants coming in at once, which there was at the turn of the century, and you go to neighborhoods where everyone's speaking Italian, or you go to towns in Wisconsin, everyone's speaking German and you think, “Oh no, what is this going to do to our national identity?” But looking at one snapshot like that doesn't show the whole picture, which is from generation to generation, things change very rapidly, and it's in the direction toward English. You don't have to do much to make that happen.

The first generation, the old folks, they might never really learn English, and then their kids will be bilingual, and then their kids will be fully English speakers and even forget the original language. These days, that's even frustrating for families that their kids, their grandkids don't keep up the old language, and then they lose it. The pressures of English are so great, and kids are so adept at learning language and giving over to whatever the majority culture is that they learn it, and it seems unnecessary to mandate it or make it some sort of requirement or law.

Um, even today it’s a great thing about our country that we have access to a lot of people who speak a lot of languages, and that's useful. When we need native speakers of a language, we have them, they're citizens. And there's no reason to try to stamp that out.

Not to mention the fact that English is a frequent borrower of words from other languages.

Okrent: English is not picky about what it will let in or accept. We don't have an academy. We don't have … you know, we don’t have to vote on whether we want to let this word in or not. People just start using it, and that makes the language really robust.

In fact, one TR’s favorite words was borrowed from another language. We’re talking, of course, about bully.

Okrent: That apparently comes from a Dutch word originally meaning, like, mate or brother, my buddy, my friend. It was first this term of endearment, and then it meant sort of a ruffian, and then it was specifically the guy who protects prostitutes, and eventually to what we have today. But it didn't come from English.

And then there are languages like German, which has so many words for which there’s no English equivalent. My favorite is kummerspeck, a term for the weight you gain from emotional overeating that literally translates to grief bacon.

Okrent: Yeah, and angst, and all of that schadenfreude, all the things we totally make good use of.

McCarthy: Yeah. We’ve just got to keep letting those words come in.

Okrent: Mm Hmm.

Before we get back to Simplified Spelling— the system by which words are reduced to their most basic expression in spelling, a system that TR championed—I want to take one quick diversion.

In May 1918, TR went to Springfield, Massachusetts, on a mission: To honor those Boy Scouts of Troop 13 who had sold $1000-worth of war bonds. It was there that he—a current titan of language—had an encounter with a future titan of language.

There were 10 boys being honored that May afternoon in the town’s municipal auditorium. As Donald E. Pease writes, “Roosevelt went down the line congratulating each of the young men, repeating a laudatory statement praising each boy’s accomplishment and pinning a medal on the honoree’s chest. … Each presentation was met with thunderous applause.”

There was a problem, though. TR had only nine medals.

So when Roosevelt came upon the 10th boy on stage, and had no medal to pin to his lapel, the understandably confused former president bellowed to the scoutmaster, “What’s this little boy doing here?”

The boy’s scoutmaster didn’t stop to explain the situation, just whisked young Theodor Geisel off-stage. The incident gave the future Dr. Seuss terrible stage fright, and honestly, who can blame him?

TR wasn’t the first person to support a phonetic spelling system—Benjamin Franklin, Noah Webster, and Brigham Young had all advocated for spelling reform. Noah Webster, for example, is probably the main reason the letter U was removed from spellings of American words and the Cs were replaced with Ses, which are distinguishing features between American and British English. Then again, he also suggested we spell machine M-A-S-H-E-E-N and women W-I-M-M-E-N, so, you know, they can’t all be winners.

So when Theodore Roosevelt issued an executive order in August 1906 directing the Government Printing Office to use the board’s proposed spelling system—what he called an effort to “make our spelling a little less foolish and fantastic”—he was in pretty good company.

The Simplified Spelling board was thrilled for sure: They even released a “Roosevelt Fonetic Spelling Book”—that’s phonetic with an F—after the order.

And here’s the thing: The Simplified Spelling Board, Webster, Roosevelt—they all may have been onto something … kind of.

Okrent: You know, if you ever meet Dutch people, or German people, they speak such good English, it can't be that difficult cause people do manage it. But it does have a reputation of certain parts of it being difficult, and a big one is the spelling. You have to learn it. You can't just get a few rules of thumb and then follow that like you can with most other languages. You just have to memorize all these spellings. Your engineering mind goes, like, “We could do this over, we could make this so much better. Why not?”

Well … here’s why not: Simplified Spelling looks ridiculous.

Okrent: If you already know how to read and write, you're just … you’re never going to accept these simplified spellings. It looks so funny. It looks like … you know, like a cat wrote it or something. Our spelling is just embedded in our education, and we're used to it. And sure, you know, 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds might be able to do better with phonetic spelling, they probably would. But our educational process is the process of bringing children into what we already do. And um, it's really hard to get over just the comic look of it.

And that’s exactly what the press and critics latched onto after Roosevelt signed the executive order. The backlash was immediate.

We’re going to take a quick break.

 

After Roosevelt signed his executive order mandating simplified spelling in government documents, everyone freaked out.

A paper in Kentucky wrote, in barely legible spelling, “Nuthing”—N-U-T-H-I-N-G—“escapes Mr. Rucevelt”—R-U-C-E-V-E-L-T. “No subject is tu hi fr”—that’s T-U H-I F-R—“him to takle”—T-A-K-L-E—“nor tu lo”—that’s T-U L-O—“for him tu notis”—spelled T-U N-O-T-I-S. “He makes tretis”—T-R-E-T-I-S—“without the consent of the Senit,” S-E-N-I-T. “He enforces such laws as meet his approval, and fales”—F-A-L-E-S—"to se”—S-E—"those that du not soot”—do spelled D-U, suit spelled spelled S-O-O-T— “him … He now assales”—A-S-S-A-L-E-S—“the English langgwidg”—“L-A-N-G-G-W-I-D-G”— “constitutes himself as a sort of French academy, and will reform the spelling in a way tu soot”—T-U S-O-O-T—"himself.”

The reaction overseas wasn’t any better. One English paper wrote, “Here is the language of 80 million suddenly altered by a mere administrative ukase”—that’s a Russian word for arbitrary command, by the way, and it’s usually reserved to describe the actions of a czar. The paper went on to say, “Could any other ruler on earth do this thing?” while another raged, “How dare this Roosevelt fellow … dictate to us how to spell a language which was ours while America was still a savage and undiscovered country!”

Amidst the brouhaha, The New York Times said that, “Roosevelt’s spelling order has done him more harm than perhaps any other act of his since he became president.”

Okrent: It's actually harder to read a long text in simplified spelling because you have to stop and sound it out, and we don't do that when we read after, you know, first, second grade. And that makes it actually harder.

It’s no wonder TR wanted to simplify spelling. Though he supposedly had a photographic memory, he was a notoriously bad speller—in fact, his wife, Edith, joked that he supported the system because he didn’t know “how to spell anything.”

Roosevelt spun the order as an experiment, writing that if the “slight changes” to the 300 words garnered popular approval, they would “become permanent without any reference to what public officials or individual citizens may feel.” If they were not popular, he said the spellings would be dropped—spelled D-R-O-P-T—concluding, “and that it all there is about it.”

But in the end, what Roosevelt wanted didn’t really matter—no one was having his strange spellings. The Supreme Court refused to follow his order, and in December 1906, Congress voted to get rid of simplified spelling, writing—in normal spelling—that the government’s documents “should observe and adhere to the standard of orthography prescribed in generally accepted dictionaries of the English language.”

Clearly defeated, TR withdrew his executive order, writing to simplified spelling proponent Brander Matthews, “I could not by fighting have kept the new spelling in. And it was evidently worse than useless to go into an undignified contest when I was beaten … But I am mighty glad I did the thing anyhow.”

Spelling finally returned to normal.

But if you think about it, in a way, Roosevelt was ahead of his time—the proof is in your text messages, where T-H-O-U-G-H is almost certainly shortened to T-H-O.

So if you’re looking to get noticed, here’s a TR pro-tip: Play around with pitch, punch those plosives, and instead of a demure “excuse me” to get someone’s attention, a loud “ex-skwas-me!” might do. And on that note … TTYL!

CREDITS

History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy.

This episode was written by me, with fact checking by Austin Thompson. Joe Weigand voiced Theodore Roosevelt in this episode.

The executive producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang.

The supervising producer is Dylan Fagan.

The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.

Special thanks to Arika Okrent.

To learn more about this episode, and Theodore Roosevelt, visit MentalFloss.com/HistoryVs. That’s MentalFloss.com slash H I S T O R Y V S.

History Vs. is a production of iHeartRadio and Mental Floss.

How to Baffle a Bull Moose: The Time Harry Houdini Tricked Theodore Roosevelt

Harry Houdini and Theodore Roosevelt aboard the SS Imperator.
Harry Houdini and Theodore Roosevelt aboard the SS Imperator.
Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

When the SS Imperator set sail for New York City in June 1914, it had on board bigwigs of both politics and entertainment—namely, former president Theodore Roosevelt and acclaimed illusionist Harry Houdini. Houdini was returning from a performance tour across the UK, and Roosevelt had been busy with a tour of his own: visiting European museums, meeting ambassadors, and then attending the wedding of his son, Kermit, in Madrid. Though the two men hadn’t crossed paths before, they soon became fast friends, often exercising together in the morning (at least, whenever Houdini wasn’t seasick).

The ocean liner hadn’t booked Houdini to perform, but when an officer asked Houdini if he’d give an impromptu performance at a benefit concert on the ship, he agreed, partially at the insistence of his new companion.

Little did Roosevelt know, Houdini had spent weeks plotting an elaborate ruse especially for him.

Houdini Hatches a Plan

ss imperator in 1912
The SS Imperator circa 1913.
George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Earlier in June, when Houdini was picking up his tickets for the trip, the teller divulged that he wouldn’t be the only celebrity on the SS Imperator.

“Teddy Roosevelt is on the boat,” the teller whispered, “but don’t tell anyone.”

Houdini, knowing there was a good chance he’d end up hosting a spur-of-the-moment show, started scheming immediately. The story was recounted in full in a 1929 newspaper article by Harold Kellock, which allegedly used Houdini’s own words from unreleased autobiographical excerpts.

Having heard that The Telegraph would soon publish details about Roosevelt’s recent rip-roaring expedition through South America, Houdini paid his editorial friends a surprise visit.

"I jumped into a taxi and went to The Telegraph office to see what I could pick up," he said. They readily obliged his request for information, and even handed over a map of Roosevelt’s journey along the Amazon.

What followed was a combination of spectacular cunning and good old-fashioned luck.

Houdini hatched a plan to hold a séance, during which he would employ a particular slate trick common among mediums at the time. In it, a participant jots down a question on a piece of paper and slips it between two blank slates, where spirits then “write” the answer and the performer reveals it.

He prepared the slates so that one bore the map of Roosevelt’s entire trail down Brazil’s River of Doubt, along with an arrow and the words “Near the Andes.” In London, Houdini had also acquired old letters from W.T. Stead, a British editor (and spiritualist) who had perished on the RMS Titanic in 1912. Houdini forged Stead’s signature on the slate to suggest that the spirit of Stead knew all about Roosevelt’s unpublicized escapades.

Upon boarding the ship, Houdini faced only two obstacles. First, he had to finagle his way into performing a public séance with Roosevelt in attendance. Second, he would have to ensure that the question his “spirit” answered was “Where was I last Christmas?” or something very similar.

Houdini cleared the first hurdle with flying colors, saying he “found it easy to work the Colonel into a state of mind so that the suggestion of séance would come from him.” Though the master manipulator doesn’t elaborate on what exactly he said about spiritualism during their conversation—later in his career, Houdini would actually make a name for himself as an anti-spiritualist by debunking popular mediums—it sufficiently piqued Roosevelt’s interest. When the ship’s officer requested that Houdini perform, Roosevelt apparently goaded, “Go ahead, Houdini, give us a little séance.”

Just like that, Houdini had scheduled a séance that Roosevelt wouldn’t likely miss—and the illusionist wasn’t going to leave a single detail up to chance.

A Back-Up Plan (Or Two)

theodore roosevelt on the ss imperator
Roosevelt relaxes aboard the SS Imperator.
George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Rather than bank on the shaky possibility that Roosevelt himself would pen the perfect question, Houdini prepared to stuff the ballot, so to speak. He had copied the question "Where was I last Christmas?" onto several sheets of paper, sealed them in envelopes, and planned to make sure that only his own envelopes ended up in the hat from which he’d choose a question. (It seems like a problematic plan, considering the possibility that Roosevelt would speak up to say something like "Wait, that wasn't my question," but Houdini doesn't clarify how he hoped this would play out.)

The morning of the séance, Houdini devised yet another back-up plan. With a razor blade, he sliced open the binding of two books, slipped a sheet of carbon paper and white paper beneath each cover, and resealed them.

As long as Roosevelt used one of the books as a flat surface to write on, the carbon paper would transfer his question to the white sheet below it—meaning that even after Roosevelt had sealed his question in an envelope, Houdini could sneak a glance and alter his performance accordingly.

A Little Hocus Pocus

Theodore Roosevelt poses with a map of the roosevelt-rondon expedition
Sometime after his voyage on the SS Imperator, Roosevelt posed with a map of his expedition through the Amazon.
Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

That night, Houdini kicked off the show with a series of card tricks, where he let Roosevelt choose the cards. “I was amazed at the way he watched every one of the misdirection moves as I manipulated the cards,” he said, according to Kellock’s article. “It was difficult to baffle him.”

Then, it was time for the séance.

"La-dies and gen-tle-men," Houdini proclaimed. "I am sure that many among you have had experiences with mediums who have been able to facilitate the answering of your personal questions by departed spirits, these answers being mysteriously produced on slates. As we all know, mediums do their work in the darkened séance room, but tonight, for the first time anywhere, I propose to conduct a spiritualistic slate test in the full glare of the light."

Houdini distributed the slips of paper, gave instructions, and then solicitously passed Roosevelt one of the books when he saw him start to use his hand as a surface. As Roosevelt began to write, composer Victor Herbert, also in attendance, offered a few shrewd words of caution.

"Turn around. Don't let him see it," Houdini heard him warn Roosevelt. "He will read the question by the movements of the top of the pencil."

"The Colonel then faced abruptly away from me and scribbled his question in such a position that I could not see him do it," Houdini said, adding, "Of course that made no difference to me."

After Roosevelt finished, Houdini took the book and slyly extracted the paper from the inside cover while returning it to the table.

In an almost unbelievable stroke of luck, Roosevelt’s question read “Where was I last Christmas?” Houdini wouldn’t need to slip one of his own envelopes between the slates after all.

"Knowing what was in the Colonel's envelope, I did not have to resort to sleight of hand, but boldly asked him to place his question between the slates himself," Houdini said. "While I pretended to show all four faces of the two slates, by manipulation I showed only three."

Then, after Roosevelt stated his question aloud to the audience, Houdini revealed the marked-up map, bearing the answer to Roosevelt’s question signed by the ghost of W.T. Stead.

In a 1926 article from The New York Times, Houdini describes Roosevelt as “dumbfounded” by the act.

“Is it really spirit writing?” he asked.

“Yes,” Houdini responded with a wink.

In Kellock’s account, however, Houdini confessed that “it was just hocus-pocus.”

Either way, it seems that Houdini never explained to Roosevelt exactly how he had duped him, and Roosevelt died in 1919, a decade before Kellock’s detailed exposition hit newsstands.

To fully appreciate the success of Houdini’s charade, you have to understand just how difficult it would’ve been to pull one over on a sharp-witted guy like Theodore Roosevelt. Dive into his life and legacy in the first season of our new podcast, History Vs. podcast, hosted by Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy.

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